Ferial Haffajee

The Woolworths boycott brigade

2012-09-06 10:48

Ferial Haffajee

Back when I scraped into Wits University, I marvelled at the new white friends I made. They all had straight teeth and they all had driver's licences and cars. And they knew all the answers in those huge lecture theatres and sometimes, for goodness sake, they even knew the lecturers. Wow. Gifted people.

They shopped at Woolworths. I worked there on Friday afternoons and Saturdays.

Grinding teeth

In the lecture theatres, even when I knew the answers, I did not answer, a practice I only learnt much later was a form of internalised inferiority - put there by a system that told us repeatedly that we were people of a lesser God. In my school, very few of us made it to university - most left to join the ranks of the destined roles for coloured people.

Some of my coloured friends had lovely teeth, but most of us were dentally imperfect with gaps, crowds and overlaps that would make my present dentist weep. And almost none of us could drive.

Hell, no. I bussed it in belching Putco buses from Bosmont or took a train to Fietas (Pageview) and then walked. My friends from Lens (Lenasia) went home on rattling and wind-blown buses and most of my black friends took ramshackle buses to Soweto residences.

This made late study hard and getting to campus a little hazardous. Nowadays, I speed along that road from Fietas to Braamfontein when I come home from my mum's house and I shiver with relief that I made it safely back on this path I now recognise to have been pretty risky for a young woman student to walk on. 

A place at the table

Do I write this because I feel sorry for myself? Not at all. All that walking gifted me with a lithe body. I tell the story in the light of the Woolworths saga which has seen social media mobilisation because the retailer is implementing employment equity.

Before you roll your eyes, hit that comment tab to type "BORING!!!! Get over apartheid, already, troll!," stay with me for a bit.

The only reason a generation of us were able to clamber out of one class, out of a distorted destiny, was because of employment equity. From university into the world of work, we have required help to get a place at the table not because we are stupid but because of the structural blocking of opportunity.

I am deeply grateful for my place at the table, for the opportunities it enshrined has enabled me to live my dreams.

Without affirmative action, I would likely be a retrenched clothing factory worker or a low-level banking clerk. That was the expected, the planned outcome for people like me. The system was called apartheid. We needed help to escape our destiny and millions of South Africans still need that help.

It is not reverse racism

It is not reverse racism, but a Constitutional imperative to fix our society. Affirmative action is enshrined in our constitution. Solidarity, Afriforum and those of you who spammed the Woolies CEO for applying the law are wrong. You discount, completely, the role of inter-generational privilege in your life.

To make a good future society demands we have make-right policies for the old one. It doesn't fix itself.

At several newspapers where I've edited, there is always an issue because young black journalists, in the main, cannot drive when they get into the newsroom. Like I could not. Often, white colleagues complain at being made chauffeur. We make a plan because some of us know that it was pretty hard to learn to drive if you didn't grow up with a car in your home.

Extrapolate this into South African corporate life and there are other examples like doing presentations, building networks, coping with the disciplines of working life, self-confidence… All these are learnt skills that come with middle-class privilege.

'I am, therefore I boycott'

Before you boycott Woolworths and fire off that missive to its CEO, consider the inter-generational privileges you enjoy -  like good teeth, drivers licences, a trust fund and social networks, the easy navigation of the halls of power - all of which are forms of capital that are unacknowledged in the toxic ways we speak about employment equity. Even 18 years after apartheid, we are not yet playing on an even field.

For people like Afriforum's Ernst Roets who so often rails against the populism of erstwhile Youth League president Julius Malema, how different are they in leveraging a myopic populism to win political support?

What's the difference between the letter-writing campaign to Woolworths to oppose a legal and considered hiring campaign and keeping Marikana miners out of negotiations for your own political ends?

To make South Africa successful, we have to play the long game and employment equity is an essential component of that success. The amazing growth of a black middle-class that has kept our economy afloat is the outcome not of BEE but of employment equity. BEE is largely a stalled and elite process while employment equity has delivered national goods. Viewed this way, we have all benefitted from the policy. To paraphrase Bill Clinton endorsing US President Barack Obama for a second term last night:  employment equity does not have to be a blood sport. It can be an enterprise that benefits everybody.

Notes to the News24 commentariat

Note #1 I know white people with less than perfect teeth, black people with teeth that are a maxilla-facial surgeon's wet dream. I have used it as a device, an example, so don't go dental on me.

Note #2 thank-you to those people who helpfully pointed out to me after my Dear Black person column that I am not black or Indian or whatever. You're right about my race. I am only of the human race, like you, and red-blooded too.

Best, Aunty Ferial

- Ferial Haffajee is editor of City Press. Follow her on Twitter: @FerialHaffajee

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